Amoureuse de Paname

Episode 1: 

Hello, I'm very excited to welcome you to the first ever episode of Paname. This is a podcast that will explore some of the unusual, forgotten or unlikely stores about Paris and the Parisians who lived there. 

Now You might be wondering why I called a podcast which is about the secret stories of Paris ‘Paname’. I do have my own personal reasons for why I particularly like this word but a straightforward response would be that Paname is a slightly old fashioned slang word for Paris. It replaced other 'P' words like Pampeluche, Pantin or Pantrouche and by the First World War was the new word in vogue as can be confirmed by numerous references and songs which refer to Paris as Paname. However the origins of this ambiguous word are complex and fascinating and can be linked with that most Parisian of monuments: that eponymous tower that looms tall over paris, ubiquitous in any google image search and emblazoned on nearly every souvenir of the city a must see for tourists and inescapable for everyone else. I'm talking about The Eiffel Tower of course and where better to start a podcast about Paris than there. 

When you get out the metro at Trocadero the view of the Eiffel tower is really breathtaking, thanks to the strict rules that forbid high-rises in Paris it feels a little bit like going back in time as the impact of the tower remains unchanged from that of 1889. Although the Tower was then the worlds tallest structure at 1000ft and would remain so for four decades until the Chrysler building in NY surpassed it at  and then just two years later the Empire state building, in another city such as New York or London which are full of skyscrapers the towers impact would be lost but here in Paris it still feels enormous.

But when Gustave Eiffel first suggested building in the middle of beautiful Paris for the occasion of the 1889 worlds faire to celebrate the centenary of the French revolution, a giant iron tower lets just say Paris and Parisians was less than pleased. They wanted little to do with, in many peoples opinions, this hideous and thankfully temporary blot on the Parisian landscape. However it proved to be a huge success, and soon became synonyms with Paris, a symbol of modernity and French ingenuity and definitely not temporary. It made Eiffel’s fortune and his reputation he became famous the world over – but just for years later things would radically change for him – his reputation forever tarnished and his career more or less over. 

In this episode we will discover how Paris and the Eiffel tower may have made the fortune and reputation of Gustave Eiffel but how Paname destroyed it. 

On the 12th of June 1886, Eiffel and his lesser known, partner Salles won the competition to build the fair’s centrepiece, beating off opponents some of which had put forward rather dubious suggestions such as a giant sprinkler, a huge brick tower or a gigantic guillotine – which even after 100 years the committee decided was still too soon to contemplate. But no sooner had Eiffel won than problems arose. Firstly financial – he estimated the total cost of the tower would be at around 5 million francs or 1 million dollars. Originally the state had planned to cover the costs but they changed their mind deciding they could only afford to cover one third and Eiffel needed to find the rest himself this would mean he ultimately invested a lot of his own money in the project. 

Next the location became problematic. The Eiffel tower was originally meant to be a temporary structure and dismantled after 20yrs. They had planned to build it on the Champs de Mars but when the Military academy got wind of this they were less than pleased and petitioned to have it moved because they discovered that they would lose their training ground, not just for the duration of the fare but the 20yrs following it.  And so its location was changed to its present place, just along the banks of the seine river. But this gave Eiffel yet another headache. The legs would require a much more complicated compressed-air construction technique to evenly spread weight on this ground due to it being much more water logged than that of the Champs de Mars. 

But it did not stop there - Petitions were signed by artists, writers and architects, including Garnier who had only recently completed his Opera, which is hardly surprising when you compare his ornate style to the pared downed modernity of the Eiffel tower. Not only this but neighbouring people were terrified that this monstrosity would collapse they were sure it would never be able to resist the wind, some people even suggested it would turn into a giant magnet and damage everything around it. So not only would this eyesore ruin house prices but worse, it would probably collapse and kill them in their beds while they slept. A number of people brought lawsuits against Eiffel, costing him time and money. In an attempt to stop the building some people even resorted to personal attacks on Eiffel’s character implying that he was Jewish in an attempt to stir up anti-Semitic feelings and prevent the tower from ever being built. He ignored this, believing that the tower would have its own beauty and that the people of Paris would come round to his point of view, staking his reputation and personal fortune on the building of this tower.

But nothing could go ahead until the government signed off on the contract however they were nervous and divided in opinion about it and it was not until January 1887 nearly 7 months after initially being chosen, that they finally gave Eiffel the go ahead. The contract, and this is important for later, stipulated that Eiffel was to only use French labour, materials and technology as the centrepiece to the worlds fare it was to showcase French skills and ingenuity. At the end of the first year the City of Paris would become its owner, but Eiffel would retain all income, save 10 percept earmarked for the city’s poor. Not a bad deal – if he could pull it off.

Three weeks later, on the 28th of January on a particularly freezing winter Eiffel and his team began work – they would work non stop, wind, rain and shine to get the tower ready in time and in just over 2 years, or rather 2 years, four months and I week to be precise, on May 15th at 11:50 1889 the 1000ft or 300metre tower was opened at last! 

And it was a huge hit, attracting around 12 thousand visitors a day and many who had originally been put off by this huge iron 'monstrosity' did see the beauty that Eiffel had promised and changed their minds. Well nearly everyone. Guy de Maupassant remained decidedly unimpressed and very vocal about it. Not one to mince his words wrote in his travel memoire "I left Paris and even France because the Eiffel tower just annoyed me too much. Not only do you see it from everywhere, you found it everywhere made out of every known material, displayed in all the shop windows, an unavoidable and horrible nightmare." So just like today souvenirs were popular from the beginning. 

Let's take a moment however to consider this ‘horrible nightmare’ and feat of engineering that in Guy's words created this 'giant and disgraceful skeleton'. Until then the highest point in Paris had been the dome of les invalids at 344 feet. And the world’s tallest structure was found in The US, the 555 ft tall Washington Monument which had been completed a few years earlier in 1884. The Eiffel tower at 1000ft was nearly double that, but as with all pioneering work there was no precedent from which Eiffel could draw. Nonetheless he was a hardworking, diligent, rigorous, capable and ambitious man. He staked everything on finishing the tower in time. If he failed or the tower collapsed he would lose it all. Accuracy was paramount; every rivet hole, and there were 2,5 million had to be drawn in the precise spot, calculations had to be accurate to one-tenth of a millimetre or this giant puzzle would not have fitted together. Each piece of the tower, and there are18 thousand was drawn separately.

The most crucial calculations had been the first floor. The four pillars that make up the legs, had to be joined together to create a perfectly even flat first platform. It was essential that it be completely level, if even a few inches askew it would undermine the whole structure and jeopardise the rest. But thanks to Eiffel’s clever hydraulic system, whereby he was able to make minute adjustments to the height of the legs, he was able to ensure that the first floor was perfectly level which allowed the work to continue.  Despite harsh weather, workmen’s strikes and the continued mockery of some Eiffel completed his magnus opus just in time. Or almost.

An important piece was still not in place. Eiffel may have wowed the public and won over the majority of people but now he needed to make some money back after all his investment, and how could he do this? Well in the same way they still do today - Get people to visit but no one wants to climb hundreds of stairs. He needed lifts. Here too he faced a problem. Remember the contract stipulated that they needed to use French labour and technology. Here Eiffel found himself in rather a pickle. lifts were essential but in the same way there had never been a tower like this before, well there had never been a lift like it either. He needed to ensure safety and compatibility. Eiffel could not bring himself to take the easy route out and have lifts which ascended the centre of the tower as he felt this would undermine the simplicity and the beauty of his structure, rather he wanted the lifts to rise in the curved legs of the tower to the second floor and then a second elevator to the top. Now if the Americans noses were somewhat put out of joint by the fact that the French had built a tower double the size of their own, surpassing them as the proud owners of the worlds largest structure, then they may take solace in the little know fact that the only company brave or perhaps foolhardy enough to take on the project was the American based Otis Company who had foreseen the need for lifts from the very beginning and had been planning since day one. Eiffel's was obliged to waiver the French only stipulation and had to accept the Otis companies bid as no others were forthcoming.  They were after all famed the world over for their innovative elevators and sterling safety record. It was not a smooth partnership but ultimately a successful one. 

The 1889 worlds faire was a great success for France and Eiffel – everyone was keen to visit his tower and see Paris from a completely new angle. He was celebrated and solicited by the whole of Paris society. But just a few years later people would despise him and even send him death threats. So what went wrong? what happened to so radically change his fortunes?

Eiffel had been unlucky enough to become involved in the doomed and corrupt Panama Canal Company.  In 1880 they had started working on building a sea-level canal which would link the pacific and Atlantic ocean via Panama. They had however drastically underestimated the difficulty of the project, not taking into account the terrain or climate. By 1887 they had lost over 280 million dollars and many of the lives of the men working for them to yellow fever and malaria. In desperation they reached out to the man of the moment, famed engineer Gustave Eiffel, who had originally opposed their plans but seeing the trouble they were in he agreed to help. Eiffel started working on a system of ‘Liquid locks’ – which he had realised necessary from the beginning.  But it was too little too late and now the people of France wanted to know where almost 300 million dollars of their money had gone. But with one promoter fled to England, another having committed suicide, one on the brink of senility only, Charles de Lessep and Gustave Eiffel were left to be held accountable. An investigation was launched to find out exactly how this debacle could had happened and how the company had managed to continue haemorrhaging money on a doomed project while at the same time still encouraging people to invest. Considering however, that the Panama Canal Company had paid over 4,4 million dollars in bribes to both the French press and various politicians it is perhaps not surprising that the truth of the matter was never revealed. Needless to say investors, many of them everyday people who had been sold a lie and lost their life’s savings were furious. They needed someone to blame and not many people felt pity for the wealthy Eiffel.  His sentence was read out on the 9th Of Feb 1893 in the Palais du Justice. He was pronounced guilty of fraud and sentenced to two years in prison as well as a fine of 4,000 dollars. 

For months later Gustave Eiffel arrived at the Conciergerie to serve his sentence. This is the very same prison that had kept Marie Antoinette prisoner before her final journey to the guillotine almost 100 years before. He was led to cell, no. 74, a plainly furnished room with only a bed a table and a chair. From his high barred window he might hear Paris bustling by but he was only able to see the river Seine. A strict routine was in place, he was awoken at 6,30 and lights out each night at 10pm. But just one week later on the June 15th he was released. The ruling had been overturned by the high court apparently that the statue of limitations had been ignored, the guilty verdict was now void and he could no longer be prosecuted for this affaire. Not only this but it would later be proved that he had not supported the original project and had no part whatsoever in the corruption or bribes. As for the canal,  in 1904 the USA would finish the project. They used more advanced excavation equipment and locks, as suggested by Eiffel. Despite being released and cleared of corruption charges his reputation was nonetheless forever tainted and he withdrew from his business and would not work on another major high profile project again. Eifflel died in his home at the age of 91 on the 27th of December while listening to Beethoven’s 5th symphony Andante

This was without doubt one of the greatest financial scandals of modern French history and it was shortly thereafter that the word Paname – so close to to that of Panama came into use to denote Paris. Leading people to believe that Paname is directly linked to the panama scandal.

Another theory however is that sophisticated Parisians had taken to wearing Panama hats after seeing them sported by the returning labourers who had been working on the construction of the canal. 

So the origins of Paname are rather obscure and I’m not sure if anyone actually knows the real answer it is either a terribly ruinous financial disaster or a fashion statement. Maybe it is a bit of both, which does feel appropriate for Paris, scandalous but always fashionable. 

So that is the story of how Paris made Eiffel and Paname broke him. This however was not the only reason that I personally chose Paname for the name of my podcast. It was also because it reminds me of when I first moved to Paris back in 2001. At that time I could not really afford French lessons, and found grammar so baffling that I decided instead to turn to music and books to teach me the language and the ways of my adopted country. My flat-mate at the time introduced me to Renaud – a popular singer from the 80s who was adept at using a particular, now somewhat dated slang or argot popular in Paris. From him I learned such useful words as ‘godasse’ which means shoes, 'futal' for trousers, or 'fringue' for clothes but it was in his song ‘amoureuse de Paname’, that I first heard this word. I asked my friends what it meant, they did not know, I looked in my, admittedly small, dictionary, nothing. Finally I asked my flat mate – Amber, he said, it means Paris. Of course.

Thank you so much for listening to this very first episode and I would love to hear your thoughts and I’m always open to new ideas and stories. For more information you can check out my website Paname or all the usual social media places. For more information about the Eiffle tower and 1889 World’s Fair I can highly recommend the book ‘Eiffel’s Tower’ by Jill Jonnes.  Paname was written and recorded by myself with music ‘la danse nostalgique’ from The owl, find links to her work in the show notes. 

That’s it for now, take care goodbye.


Episode 2